Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer prize winning novel, proved to be an incredibly rewarding story. This book is almost 900 pages and is full of raw emotion, of the questions why and what if. Theo, the protagonist and narrator of the story, transforms from an innocent, curious teenager to a disappointed and distant adult. We as readers watch him transition from a life in New York’s Upper East Side to a life that can only be defined and known by the word devastation. Theo’s life becomes surreal before us and we can only watch from afar, concerned and hopeful, yet understanding, commiserating in his pain and his never-ending question of ‘what’s the point?’

Even in Theo’s ‘pre-life’ as he calls it- the life before the accident that killed his mother- we see his dark moods, his concern with human activity and curiosity into knowing it deeper. I relate to his relentless desire to dig deeper, to know more, while equally feeling disgusted and embarrassed by all of humanity.

Our story begins in an art museum in NYC. Theo and his mother are there, browsing and contemplating art, a regular occurrence for the duo. Theo feels somewhat annoyed that they’re in the museum, a feeling he regrets for the rest of his life. Tartt is an excellent writer, an incredibly detail-oriented observer who gives a regular day at a museum a feeling of utter nostalgia and heartbreak, a tone unmistakably gray and dismal, a foreboding sense that nothing will ever be the same. While at the museum, Theo is caught off guard by a beautiful stranger, a red-headed girl walking hand-in-hand with an old man. He is mesmerized by the girl: ‘I was very taken by the idea that a person might notice in passing some bewitching stranger and remember her for the rest of his life.’ It’s these moments, isn’t it? Small moments where the planets align and our pupils and souls enlarge with some kind of understanding, some kind of exhale that says ‘this is right.’

Soon after first seeing this red-headed symbol of fate, Theo’s life changes forever. A bomb goes off in the museum. Tartt creates an atmosphere, a truly horrific fog of a place, of a day. Time seems to slow, for Theo and for readers, as he walks through the museum unsure of what’s happened. At first he sees only debris and wreckage; eventually, the carnage shows. Human bodies, covered in dirt and plaster. Theo seeks his mother, never doubting she is somewhere, maybe waiting for him outside. Simultaneously he seeks the redhead, hopes for her survival. Eventually Theo stumbles upon a dying old man, the red-head’s friend. Together the two share one of the most human moments I’ve ever read: the man speaks to Theo as if he is an old friend and Theo plays along, lets the man have a real connection before departing. Before he dies, the man points toward a painting lying on the ground. It’s The Goldfinch, a simple, small, beautiful painting, one that the man begs Theo to take, to save. And he does: in a confused panic, Theo takes the painting with him, walks out of the wreckage alone, never to find his mother again. He’s forever changed, and the painting becomes both a talisman of safety and security, his connecting thread to his mother and his life before the tragedy, and a symbol of panic and anxiety, a constant reminder that this terrible thing happened to him, that he holds darkness within him he cannot shake or comprehend. The Goldfinch is his security and his fear.

After his mother’s death, Theo lives with Andy Barbour’s family, a rich, kind family in NYC. In this time Theo moves and goes where he needs to move and go. ‘How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? A hard physical longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake I tried to recall my best memories of her- to freeze her in my mind so I wouldn’t forget her- but instead of birthdays and happy times I kept remembering things like how a few days before she died she’d stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off of my school jacket.’ I love this about The Goldfinch- the small, gritty details that make up day to day life; the way Theo remembers the insignificant things and constantly asks himself ‘what if?’ The way he plays the game of ‘if only’ (if only I’d been less annoyed that day, if only I’d told her I didn’t want to go to the museum, if only I’d told her I loved her that morning) describes grief. ‘But sometimes, unexpectely, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.’ Theo grieves hard. His first bit of light comes in finding Hobie, the friend and coworker of the old man who died in the museum, and Pippa, the red-headed girl from the museum who also managed to survive. ‘Sitting there on the edge of her bed, it felt like the waking-up moment between dream and daylight, where everything merged and mingled just as it was about to change, all in the same, fluid, euphoric slide: rainy light, her kiss still sticky on my lips. Yet I’m not sure that even morphine would account for how lighthearted I felt at that moment, how smilingly wrapped up in happiness and beauty I was. The flavor of Pippa’s kiss- bittersweet and strange- stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.’

Theo begins to trust the Barbour family and to feel comfortable in their home. But just as this comfort begins to set in, Theo is told he must move to Las Vegas with his father and his father’s girlfriend. ‘None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?’ He witnesses the two of them prowl through his mother’s apartment, watches them pawning over jewelry and other monetary items, and for the first time, he panics about the hidden painting. He understands for the first time that he has committed a crime. He leaves NYC behind in heartbreak: for his mother, for the only home he’s ever known, for the loss of the Barbour family togetherness, and for Pippa and Hobie, the new comforts he has only recently been brought back to.

In the time Theo spends in Las Vegas, he meets his best friend, the life-altering person who makes you rethink everything you’ve ever thought you’ve known: Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant who has lived in multiple countries and states, who has taken care of himself his entire life and who has been drunk at 15 probably more times than I have at 24. Theo becomes interested in alcohol and drugs, finds a way to laugh through his grief and to channel his energy into finding money and/or food for he and Boris. His time in Las Vegas is blurry for him and the reader, a mix of supreme happiness and friendship with Boris and utter disbelief and sadness in his life. He feels disconnected from his father, a gambler always nervous and abusive and unpredictable. There are moments though, despite it all, that the reader really roots for Theo, for the small, happy, light moments that come through for him even in his sober mind: ‘And though in the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, words like day and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness, amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn’t seem quite such a doomed or fatal idea.’ And the most beautiful line comes in this chaotic time of Theo’s life: ‘I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.’

Eventually, the drunken nights lead to Boris and Theo becoming somewhat sexual with one another. It is told to the reader in drunken/high snippets, memories in between puking and sleeping, wavering between dream and reality. The two do not discuss it and carry on as always, as extensions of one another, as saviors from the depression and sadness they both carry with them. The two do start drifting apart due to Boris getting a girlfriend; in this time, Theo’s father becomes heavily involved and in trouble with an important gambler. The man comes to the house often, causes Theo to tremble and check that his painting is still hidden, leads him to paranoia that the man will find the painting. He does not; instead, Theo’s father desperately tries to get a hold of Theo’s trust fund, tries everything he can, and eventually dies in a car accident. The news cuts Theo deep, and leads him to the decision of running to NYC rather than allow Child Services to place him in a foster home. He runs, with his painting, to Hobie in New York, unsure if the man will let him in, desperate and alone, grieving yet again. As he leaves, he tries convincing Boris to join him. ‘Later- in the cab and afterward- I would replay that moment, and marvel that I’d waved and walked away quite so casually. Why hadn’t I grabbed his arm and begged him one last time to get in the car, come on, fuck it Boris, we’ll be getting breakfast over cornfields when the sun comes up? In the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time. But I didn’t. And in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street- which was, of course, I love you.’ I cried at this moment. I let myself cry with this young boy, this older man looking back on his life and remembering the moments of supreme love and loss. The words I love you echoed within me because of their truth.

The next section of the novel brought Theo’s life in NYC with Hobie; he grew to become a partner at Hobie’s furniture antique store. He made them a lot of money (not always legally) and accelerated Hobie’s business and reputation. All the while he was again visiting the Barbours where he learned an ugly truth: Andy had drowned as had his father. Mrs. Barbour has become less frigid and now exposes her vulnerabilities to Theo. His visits turn into regular occurrences and before long he starts dating Kitty Barbour, the younger sister of Andy. Kitty is an attainable, bubbly, exciting presence; whereas Pippa is taken and living in London, Kitty is here and familiar. She is convenient. And yet nothing can equate to Theo’s love for Pippa: ‘Whenever she smiled at me the wind blew in. Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination. She was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone.’ Theo thinks of Pippa since the first moment he saw her: for him, she is the connector of his before life and his after life, the one human being who he knows has lived through a similar darkness. ‘Strange, I thought, how a few hours could change everything- or rather, how strange to find that the present contained such a bright shard of the living past, damaged and eroded but not destroyed.’

Theo’s life has a somewhat stable element to it; he is content with Kitty and engaged to marry her, he enjoys and excels at his job, and his relationship with Hobie continues to be great. Trouble comes, however, from a furniture dealer who approaches Theo about his fabricated furniture and the way Theo sold junk furniture as expensive originals. This shakes Theo but what comes next is even more haunting: the man knows about the painting. He continuously threatens Theo with the knowledge that he has The Goldfinch, and Theo continuously denies. He’s spent the past few years hyper-paranoid, watching as those who stole art from the same museum that day become imprisoned, as art collectors rejoice at the found pieces. He feels a burden and a guilt but there is something else there still: a safety, a comfort, a piece of his mother. It’s around this time that Theo seeks out drugs again and in doing so runs into Boris in the middle of NYC; Boris, who Theo had tried communicating with for years without success; Boris, the friend who had abandoned him and felt like a ghost. The two reconnect for a night, high and high-strung, and eventually, Theo confides in Boris that a man has been threatening him. And in the plot twist of the novel, Boris reveals the truth: he stole The Goldfinch from Theo in Vegas. The current package Theo has been hiding is an old school textbook, the real one had been sold years ago by Boris. My heart plummeted when I realized what was being revealed, when I realized that not only had Boris let Theo down, had become a stranger, but he had also jeopardized and destroyed the symbol of Theo’s life-altering moment.

This knowledge sends Theo into a nose-dive of sadness, paranoia, and depression. ‘But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring job and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in am empty house. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent.’ The desire to know strangers, to understand human emotion and the human experience, has become a frightful, existential loop of ‘what’s the point?’ The only person he remains curious of is Pippa: ‘all that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously, to her.’
‘The light in the kitchen was all mixed up with the light of her presence, with color and freshness and beauty.’
‘Tiny table. My knee to her knee- was she aware of it? Quite as aware as I was? Bloom of the candle flame on her face, flame glinting metallic in her hair, hair so bright it looked about to catch fire. Everything bright, everything sweet.’
‘And the fat summer moon shining white and pure overhead, and my love for her was really just that pure, as simple and steady as the moon. But then finally we had to go inside and almost the instant we did the spell was broken, and in the brightness of the hallway we were embarrassed with each other. For months I had been desperate to recapture that moment; and- in the bar, for an hour or two- I had. But it was all unreal again, we were back right where we started, and I tried to tell myself it was enough just to have had her all to myself for a few hours. Only it wasn’t.’

Boris surprises Theo at his engagement party with news that he’s found The Goldfinch in Europe; the two jump on an airplane leaving behind Kitty and the shocking information Theo has discovered: Kitty has been cheating. This paired with Theo’s heartbreaking evening with Pippa (in which he realizes his love for her is nowhere close to ending) pushes him into sadness. And in Amsterdam, after locating the people who have The Goldfinch, disaster strikes: criminal art dealers find Boris and Theo trying to steal the painting back. Gunfire. Blood. Boris struck down. And worst of all, Theo shot at one of the men, killing him. Afterwards, covered in blood and soot and shock, Boris drops Theo off at his hotel, still empty of the painting. Boris instructs Theo not to reach out to him or to anyone, and for months, Theo barricades himself in his hotel room. ‘To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness- not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, and world lost and vast and unknowable, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.’ Theo’s depression gets so bad that he deeply considers suicide: ‘it was nothing I hadn’t thought of, plenty, and in far less taxing circumstances; the urge shook me grandly and unpredictably, a poisonous whisper that never wholly left me, that on some days lingered just on the threshold of my hearing but on others roared up uncontrollably into a sort of lurid visionary frenzy, why I wasn’t sure, sometimes even a bad movie or a gruesome dinner party could trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had- more than once- driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happened to have on hand: only tolerance and ineptitude that I’d botched it, unpleasantly surprised when I woke up.’

Theo spends months alone in his Amsterdam hotel room, oscillating between utter despair and hopelessness and week long binges. He hardly knows when he is conscious. ‘I watch the clouds reflected on sliding panes and marvel how even my sadness can make me happy, how it can all somehow seem so necessary and so right.’
‘Here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radianec away from health, domesticitiy, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or- like Boris- is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?’
‘And I’m hoping that there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it- although I’ve come to realize the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.’
‘Because here’s the truth: life is catastrophe.’
‘And does it make sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end- and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?’
‘And who knows- but maybe that’s what’s waiting for us at the end of the journey, a majesty unimaginable until the very moment we find ourselves walking through the doors of it, what we find ourselves gazing at in astonishment when God finally takes His hands off our eyes and says: Look.’
‘Between reality on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And- I would argue as well- all love.’
‘And just as the music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky- so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.’

Eventually, Boris finds Theo again after Theo has written suicide notes and then trashed them, after he’s decided to turn himself into the police. He’s cheery and mocks Theo’s sadness. Eventually we learn that Boris tracked down the painting and managed to do something extraordinary: sell it to legal art contractors who wanted the painting for preservation purposes. With the sold money, Theo becomes rich. He travels back to New York and admits his illegal furniture dealings to Hobie. He pays back the people he’s wronged, confesses his love to Pippa who still cannot return his love although she feels it too- she believes they’re both too damaged, fucked up from their too-close-contact with death. Theo isn’t sure of his status with Kitsey but recognizes that there are multiple kinds of love that are everchanging. The novel ends in anticlimax, in Theo contemplating where his life has led him and what it means that a painting could have done so much. He tries to finally answer the never-ending question of his life: what is the point? And he gets as close to an answer as he can:

‘That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and gravel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time- so too has love. Insofar as it is important (and it is) i have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.’

This is how the novel ends: somewhat hopeful despite knowing what Theo has known since the loss of his mother. It ends on the thought that despite all the bullshit, it might be worth it. That the work we do is important, and that the love we share matters.

 

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